Director : Sam Mendes
With : Annette Bening, Kevin Spacey, Thora Birch
I love backpacking when I’m on vacation, but every once in a while I have to admit it’s nice to sleep in a good hotel room with nice tight sheets and cool quiet air conditioning. I feel the same way about movies. Although I love gritty cleverly scrapped together independent films, occasionally it’s really nice to see a big budget Hollywood film, complete with stars, a high production value and a dramatic film score. In fact sometimes there is nothing more rewarding than that magical feeling you can get while watching a really intelligent studio funded pseudo art-film. If we’re lucky we get one or maybe two of these a year, “Shawshank Redemption,” “The Usual Suspects” and “Eyes Wide Shut” to name a few.
“American Beauty” can definitely be classified as one of these films. Like a bigger, broader more contemporary version of “The Ice Storm,” “American Beauty” beats with that schizophrenic pulse of suburban life. There is that familiar feeling of both taken-for-granted comfort and incredible boredom that seeps from each of the films characters. The film also represents the cinematic debut of theater wunderkind Sam Mendes, who has been turning heads lately with his direction of “The Blue Room” and the revival of “Cabaret.” Mendes’ theater training is evident in the near perfect and symmetrical staging of scenes and camera angles. But it is his use of limited but effective-special effects, sarcastic voice-overs and an overall surreal perspective that hints to his potential a career to be filled with profoundly innovative films.
But in the end it is the performances of Kevin Spacey, Annette Benning and the rest of the cast that will be remembered in the future. As usual Spacey slips immediately into character, and then evolves the role into another one of his brilliantly complex creations by the end. Benning, whom I usually can’t stand, is also incredible as the manic, anal, detached and sad mother wife and mother. And then there is the perfectly cast slate of teenagers (Thora Birch, Mena Suvari, Wes Bentley) for whom the film revolves around.
Like a fusion between “The Ice Storm” and the troubled suburban dramedies by Todd Solondz (Happiness, Welcome To The Dollhouse), “American Beauty” manages graft all the strengths of all of these dark suburban predecessors, and create something a little more linear and accessible. This is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand much of what would have been more memorable as ambiguous subtly is exchanged for explanatory voice over and dramatic resolve. But conversely in an effort to open this movie up to a wider audience, much of the emotional weight of the film is softened by overstatement.
“American Beauty” is easily one of the best films in a long time. It is both funny and devastating, visual and cerebral. This is the kind of movie that you root for at the Academy Awards because the compromises it has made don’t seem so much cop-outs as an acceptable marketing decision that merely gives the film a chance of being seen by a wide audience.